Buffalo Transportation Pierce-Arrow Museum: Coachwork by, and Powered by, Jim Sandoro

  • story by David M. Brown
  • posted on 05/2017
  • posted in: Great Garages

When he was 9, Jim Sandoro told his mother he would own a museum for his collectibles.

Today, his Pierce-Arrow Museum at Michigan and Seneca streets in downtown Buffalo greets 40,000 visitors annually. When built out in 2020, it will be one of the world’s largest car museums, covering a city block with classic automobiles, automobilia and motorcycles, including a 1912 Pierce-Arrow cycle, perhaps the best earliest original from the company anywhere.

Sandoro, a well-known collector of the great Pierce-Arrows, which were produced in Buffalo from 1901 to 1938, began his automotive passion at the next door neighbor’s.

“The grandfather had a mammoth deep-green Pierce Arrow town car in mothballs on blocks hidden away in the garage, which was taboo for us,” Sandoro, 72, recalls. “But we slid down the fenders to the running boards anyway.”

These young rides propelled his interest in classic cars and car parts. When he was 18, just out of high school, the entrepreneurial Sandoro started a shop in an old livery stable, which he still owns. He restored Model As, sold Model T and Model A parts and began drag-racing. He was also acquiring parts and collectibles from local flea markets. Today that collection, some displayed at the museum, some inventoried, numbers 350,000-plus.

Sandoro bought his first car, a 1930 Model A, from a woman in the neighborhood: He had about $60 and borrowed the rest from his mother. As a young man, he also owned and raced a ‘56 Chevy Bel Air, with a 283-cid/280-horse four-barrel and an automatic. In October 1962, he ordered a legendary 1963 Chevrolet 409/425 Impala with dual quads, which he sold a couple years later and replaced with another model. He later replaced that classic model with another one, exactly equipped.

In 1997, Jim and his wife, Mary Ann, established the Buffalo Transportation Pierce-Arrow Museum, a New York State not-for-profit educational institution. The Sandoros are willing their collection and properties to the museum.

The Pierce-Arrow museum displays 25−45 cars, 1903 to the 1960s, all overseen by Sandoro and Mary Ann, a former curator of exhibits for what is now the Buffalo History Museum. By the expected build-out in 2020, they hope to have approximately 300,000 square feet under roof with more than 100 cars as well as a re-creations of a speakeasy and a landmark Buffalo steak house. The new 40,000-square-foot building will connect the two existing buildings and will feature a three story-tower with video projections of cars on its exterior walls.

The museum complex is intimately connected with the history of the great Lake Erie city.

“In 1900, Buffalo was the richest city in the U.S., with more millionaires than any other in the country,” Sandoro says, explaining that this was a result of lucrative grain-milling and Buffalo’s status as the western terminus of the Erie Canal as well as the water power harnessed from the Niagara River and Niagara Falls. In 1909, the city had 650 Pierces and 480 Thomas cars, which sold for up to $10,000, much more than the populist Model T at $400.

Near the museum is the site of the city’s first railroad station, built in the1830s.

Four blocks away was the first Pierce-Arrow factory, a since-razed 75,000-square-foot building, where George Norman Pierce (1846−1910) first built birdcages, ice chests, tricycles and bikes, then the great luxury cars. In 1906, he built a 1.5-million-square-foot location on the site of the former Pan-American Exposition of 1901. The epitome of wealth and prestige, the cars were acquired by President Taft for the White House, John D. Rockefeller, the Shah of Persia, J. Edgar Hoover, Orville Wright and Babe Ruth.

Close, too, is the original Thomas Flyer factory, where the E. R. Thomas Motor Company under Edwin Ross Thomas (1850−1936) produced motorized bikes, trikes, motorcycles, and cars between 1900 and 1913. The building today is headquarters for Rich Products.

In 2001, with the help of Patrick J. Mahoney, an associate of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Graycliff Conservancy, Sandoro found the architect’s 1927 drawings for a filling station, which had not been built. In 2014, the museum unveiled the full-size replica of the Buffalo Filling Station, planned for just blocks away. June 8 is the 150th anniversary of the great architect’s birth.

One of the recipients of the 2014 Copper in Architecture Awards from the Copper Development Association, Inc., this “ornament to the pavement,” as Wright called it, incorporates an overhead gravity-fed gas distribution system for fueling, an attendant’s quarters and a second-story observation room where patrons could wait as their vehicle was serviced. 

About a mile away is the site of the great Larkin Administration Building, constructed to Wright’s plans in 1906 but unbelievably razed by the Western Trading Corp. in 1950 to make way for a parking lot. Today, fortunately, the site is part of Larkin Square, a vibrant mixed-use center.

“People just love the museum,” says Sandoro, who once began an auction company called Auction America with Russ Jackson of Barrett-Jackson fame. “It’s not just cars but all of the memorabilia, too, the clothing, the trophies, the pins. We have 2,200 signs alone, porcelain to tin, and posters and billboards.”

“This is our gift to Buffalo.”

Pierces to Playboy

•1902 Buffalo Electric Stanhope –– This electric carriage was manufactured by the Buffalo Electric Carriage Company and sold for $1,650. Weighing about 1,800 pounds, it features wood wheels, hard rubber tires and a Victoria top. Capable of traveling at 14 mph through eight speeds forward and three backward, it goes for 50 miles fully charged on level roads.

•Stanhope Electric –– Fifty examples of the four-passenger car were sold in 1903 at $1,100 each, built on light frame tubing and including a folding top, two forward speeds and a reverse gear.

The well-known collector and aircraft mechanic, Barney Pollard, “Mr. Antique Automobile,” saved many classic cars, as others did in the 1940s, when the war devoured all the metal available for Jeeps, tanks and victory. He ended having so many he stacked them vertically to save space.

“I approached him to sell me parts, and I would load up my station wagon and bring them back from Detroit to Buffalo,” Sandoro says. He still has the original 1944 title to this car, which he purchased from Pollard.

•1909 Thomas Flyer 6-40 Flyabout –– The five-passenger 267-cid 6-cylinder outputs 40 horsepower through a three-speed manual transmission. The price was hefty at $4,900.

In 1908, a 1907 Thomas Flyer 35 driven by George Schuster won the first and only 22,000-mile New York-to-Paris Race. The extraordinarily challenging competition began in a snow storm in Times Square on February 12, 1908, and ended 169 days later, when Schuster arrived in Paris to win, affirming that America could more than compete with the already robust European car industry.

This Flyer once belonged to the industrialist James Kellogg Clark and was sold to Jack Passey in California, from whom Sandoro bought the car for $40,000 in 1973. Visitors to the museum see it in the original body and on the right wheels.

•1918 Pierce-Arrow 7-Passenger Touring Car –– On a massive 142-inch wheelbase, the 6-cylinder outputs 48.6 horsepower from 525 cubic inches through four forward speeds and a reverse. From America’s then leading luxury brand, the new 5 Series offered improved gas mileage and a higher top speed –– an outstanding car for touring.

•1919 Pierce Arrow Intercity Bus –– One of the earliest, most comfortable people movers in America, the bus has a luggage rack, air shock absorbers and fender-mounted headlights.

The bus came from western Canada in the 1990s. The owner had installed a Lincoln engine and power steering, and Sandoro has shown the cherished vehicle in festivals since: “It’s staying here forever.”

•1948 Playboy –– Manufactured by the Playboy Motor Car Co. in Buffalo from 1947−1951, the company was founded by Lou Horwitz, a former Packard dealer, Charlie Thomas, a former Pontiac engineer and Norm Richardson, a garage mechanic. Just 97 were built, and this restored prototype is the only known one with a Continental kit. Estimates have about 43 Playboys still in existence.

Playboy produced the car at $995 f.o.b. Buffalo as the second car in the typical American family. With a 40-horsepower four-cylinder engine, the sleek car measures 156 inches overall. The innovative folding steel top was hinged in the middle with a leak-proof rubber gaskets. At $1,000, the three-seater was attractively priced.

The company suffered from a lack of capital investment, including two failed stock offerings and an unsuccessful attempt to sell the company to Henry J. Kaiser of the Kaiser-Frazer Car Co. in 1950. The firm declared bankruptcy the following year, but Hugh Hefner heard the name and built an empire anyone, playboy or not, would admire.

Admission to the Buffalo Transportation Pierce Arrow Museum is $10 for adults and $5 for children 6−15. For more information on dates and times, see pierce-arrow.com.

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